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To Serve and Preserve

The alarm of a fire was once announced by the ringing of the church bell or a watchman, equipped with a large rattle and calling out for help.

Responding to the alarm, people would bring their own buckets to draw water from the nearest well to form a “bucket brigade.” Men would relay the full buckets while women and children passed the empty buckets back to the water source to refill.

From the mid 1800’s to the present, major changes have taken place in fire services across Canada.

Fire brigades were formed inviting interested, community-minded citizens who wanted to join. Brigades were often like clubs, offering prestige and distinction to their members.

The history of firefighting in Wilmot Township began in 1858 when New Hamburg residents used donations to purchase a hand pumper. The first formal fire brigade in the Township was established in New Dundee in 1914, following a major fire.

The town of Baden followed with the creation of its own fire brigade and they were the first in the township to have a motorized pumper – they purchased a Model T Ford pumper in 1927.

In 1995, a group of retired firefighters from Wilmot Township joined together to preserve the priceless artifacts of Wilmot’s firefighting history, forming the Wilmot Heritage Fire Brigades.

Blain Bechthold was part of this original group and continues to be an active member today.

He spent 28 years as a firefighter with Baden’s fire department before retiring in 1993 and since then, has dedicated much of his time with the Brigades.

“We formed this group because we didn’t want to see our trucks leaving town, despite rumours,” Bechthold said.

“I was a firefighter and I grew up in Baden. I think when you reach a certain age you appreciate history even more. The rumour that these trucks might be leaving town, made me think that this can’t happen. So, along with a few other retired firefighters, we got together and started this.”

A restored Baden firetruck at the museum, Photo: Barbara Geernaert

The Wilmot Heritage Fire Brigades has the mission is to restore, maintain, preserve and display historical firefighting vehicles, equipment and documents and to promote and educate the public in the heritage of firefighting in Wilmot Township.

Today, the museum holds a collection of artifacts including hose reels, uniforms, bunker gear, photographs, documents and fire trucks.

In 2017, members of the fire brigade unveiled a newly restored 1940 Fargo/Bickle pumper.

The truck was purchased by the Baden Fire Dept. in 1940 for $990.00 and it was in service from 1940 – 1975.

The restoration project took about four years to complete by volunteers.

“We wanted it took like it did originally,” Bechthold says as he holds up an old photograph of the original vehicle which was used to restore it to what it once was.

Most importantly, the truck is part of Baden’s history, having been purchased by the town and remaining there ever since.

“These things need to be kept for future generations,” Bechthold says. “Younger generations probably don’t know a lot about hand pumpers for example. We purchased two handpumps, one hand-pulled and one horse drawn. We restored them after buying them from auction sales. They still pump water.”

The Wilmot Heritage Fire Brigades belongs to the Waterloo Wellington Museum and Galleries Network.

It is a non-profit organization completely run by volunteers. Meetings are held once a month.

“We have about 80 members from young to old. And it’s not all past and present firefighters. It’s $10 a year to join and people pay it because they feel it’s worthwhile,” Bechthold said.

“And we get visitors from all over.”

Fire department hats through the ages, Photo: Barbara Geernaert

The museum is open Wednesday nights and on Saturday mornings during the summer months.

“Our focus is on Wilmot Township but other departments from places like Elmira, Linwood, Ayr and Floradale have generously donated items,” Bechthold says.

“The building was used by various departments for storage, so we decided to open a museum since everything was already here.”

But the brigade buildings are tight quarters especially when servicing or restoration projects are underway.

“We are still looking for a place to store three of our trucks. We keep looking for better premises.”

The WHFB has various fundraisers throughout the year including a steel drop off where people can drop off their used metal items and the group receives funds from recycling which helps cover costs including heat and hydro.

The WHFB offers free museum tours and their vehicles often appear at various parades throughout the year.

Last year, the WHFB was invited to display their firefighting artifacts at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto and the display was available for public viewing.

“We were quite proud to have our items displayed there,” Bechthold said.

If the group does find the required space needed, Bechthold says he hopes to display the names of volunteers, past and present for all citizens in the township.

“They need to be remembered. That is why I joined the department. I thought it could be my house burning one day. I wanted to do my part. The friendship with the firefighters lasts a lifetime,” he said.

“And it is so important to hold on to all of the items in the museum. It’s a part of our history.”

For more information on the WHFB, visit: wilmotfiremuseum.com

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